The Latin America AstraZeneca Deal: a Bitter-Sweet Feeling

By Gustavo A. Maranges on December 26, 2021 from Havana

Cuba has 3 effective vaccines against Covid with 2 more on the way. photo: Alejandro Azcuy

Just a few days have passed since Argentina and Mexico achieved a very important landmark in the world’s fight against COVID-19. Both countries have been involved in a long race to produce COVID-19 vaccines and they achieved it some months ago, after getting AstraZeneca patent to produce a variation of the original vaccine. They have been producing vital medicine since then, and on last December 23rd, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended the emergency use of this product, which is the ninth one to match the international standards of quality, safety, and efficiency required by the organization. Before it, only Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Sinopharm, Sinovac, Covaxin, and Covishield vaccines have gotten such a category.

“This is an important milestone for Latin America and highlights the importance of technology transfer to increase the availability of quality vaccines,” said the Director of the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) Carissa Etienne.

PAHO announced this event as a major milestone for the region, and in fact, it is. According to the national governments of Mexico and Argentina, this cooperation project should produce about 250 million doses to be distributed among Latin American countries. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (MEX) and Alberto Fernandez (ARG) assured that the cost per dose will be “affordable”, which is as ambiguous as hopeful.

This variation of AstraZeneca vaccines has helped these two major countries to handle the pandemic and, after the WHO recognition, it can be bought through the COVAX facility or the PAHO/WHO rotating  fund. This means that countries in need won’t have to pay directly for the vaccines and would be able to use these multilateral funds to guarantee the necessary doses to get in their peoples arms. At the same time, they don’t have to compete with the rest of the world for the supply, since the 250 million doses batch is entirely destined for Latin America.

The announcement showed up in a critical moment since the PAHO reported 1.1 million COVID-19 cases during the last week, meaning a 6% increase compared to the previous week. Latin America has advanced the vaccination process, but the differences within the region is remarkable. While countries like Cuba and Chile are at the top of the world’s vaccination ranking, some others won’t even be able to fulfill the WHO’s goal to vaccinate 40% of the population before 2022.

Another benefit of the WHO recommendation is related to travel and immigration, since most developed countries, like the European Union’s members and the United States, have established some discriminatory measures regarding COVID-19 vaccines. Sanitary regulation from these countries requires travelers to be vaccinated with WHO-recommended vaccines, which is a disadvantage for those in the region who were shot with the LATAM AstraZeneca, the Russian Sputnik-V, or any of the three Cuban vaccines.

The recent achievement is certainly one of the best pieces of news of the year, but this story has a missing part. The PAHO announced the Mexican-Argentinian vaccine as “the first LATAM-produced COVID-19 vaccine,” which is, at best, not accurate. If we go back in time just a little, we can remember that, early this year, Cuba announced that its entire population will be vaccinated with home-grown vaccines. So the binational project is still good news, but LATAM AstraZeneca is not the first vaccine in the region.

Despite the hard economic situation and the US blockade, Cuba was able to develop not one but three vaccines, while another two are going through different stages of the clinic trials period. Abdala, Soberana 02, and Soberana Plus have made Cuba the second highest country in the world in terms of the percentage of the vaccinated population and the first one to complete this process for people under 18 years old.

So, when we look at the speeches from the PAHO, it looks like Cuba is not a Latin American country. In her statements, Ms. Etienne joyfully mentioned that the continent is willing to help ease the world’s lack of supply, and the PAHO helped Mexico and Argentina to fit the WHO requirements to achieve this goal. However, there has been has been little help to the Cuban side regarding this issue, which is somehow twisted since Cuban vaccines were ready way before this developement and they even have shown more effectiveness.

So far, the process to grant the WHO-recommended status for the Cuban vaccines is stuck in a bureaucratic process, when it is supposed to be the other way around. Cuba has over 10 different vaccines recognized by the WHO from the same labs that now are producing COVID-19 vaccines. Despite that, the PAHO/WHO has cried out about the urgency to produce more vaccines at affordable prices, something that Cuba has been committed to since the beginning, and has already made agreements with countries like Iran, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Vietnam, just to mention the most obvious examples. Likewise, PAHO announced the creation of a Regional Platform to produce vaccines and other Health Technologies for COVID-19, putting special emphasis on ARN-based vaccines, while Cuban vaccines are all ARN-based.

The problem here is not to choose between Cuba or the bi national project, since both deserve the same attention and help but it is not fair to ignore the effort and the brilliant results of one, if not the most, successful biotechnological researchers in the region.

So, it is impossible to not feel that there is some hypocrisy and political maneuvering going on behind the scenes in all this. International organizations keep saying they want to solve COVID-19 problems but ignore the Cuban solution. Why? Is it about Cuba and not its effective vaccines? Is it because Cuba represents a real threat to the transnational interests that are making an obscene amount of money in this pandemic?  Is it because the US gives so much money that it is impossible to go against its will, even when the world’s health is at risk? There are so many questions to be answered; but I am hopeful and I want to think that saying that LATAM AstraZeneca is the first vaccine of the region was a momentary lapse and that the PAHO/WHO is not biased by any political influence, because that would be disrespectful to humankind, at a minimum.

After all, we have plenty of reasons to celebrate. Mexico and Argentina’s achievements belong to the region, and no matter how much they try to shadow Cuba, we all know what is the truth. However, a bitter-sweet feeling floods the millions who keep waiting for more solutions and less talking.

Source: Resumen Latinoamericano –  English